Monday, 4 February 2008

Mass Effect

Mass EffectStar Trek games always seem to disappoint. Bafflingly, they nearly always seem to be based around huge ponderous spaceships blasting chunks out of each other (though I seem to remember a first person shooter based on Voyager a while back). That stuff used to be great fun when it appeared in the programmes and the early movies, at least until it started to be shown up by the more epic, frantic and exciting space battles of Babylon 5, but it was far from the crux of Star Trek’s success. The true appeal of Star Trek lies in the human – and alien – interactions: emotion, drama, punch-ups, moral dilemmas, romance, conflict, humour, and, last but not least (and the one that seemed all too often forgotten in recent iterations of the franchise) sex appeal. Mass Effect is a game that relegates the huge spaceships to cut scenes and concentrates on the stuff that really made Star Trek great, adding to it huge lashes of the good stuff from Battlestar Galactica, Babylon 5 and Star Wars, not to mention a big dollop of prime David Brin. It’s the most “sci-fi” game I’ve ever played, and I think many science fiction fans would get a great deal of pleasure from simply watching the cut scenes edited together into a movie, never mind actually playing the game.

But let’s move onto the game anyway, because it is worth playing! However, it says much about it that after 80 hours of playing it I feel barely qualified to comment. I’ve gained about 840 of its 1000 achievement points and yet, without mastering the sniper rifle, using the full range of biotic attacks, or partnering up for the game with Liara the lovely Asari or Wrex the unlovely Krogan, I feel that there’s a lot left for me to do.

Reactions to the game (leaving aside the hilarious “porn simulator” nonsense brewed up by idiotic American conservatives) have tended to follow a certain pattern. Initially most people tend to be underwhelmed – you can see that in Edge magazine’s disappointed seven out of ten review in issue 183, in reactions from gamers on Digital Spy, and in the negative review from distinguished Xbox writer Dean Takahashi. I felt the same way.

At first to me the fighting felt uncontrolled, the weapons unbalanced, the graphics a bit too choppy. I don’t like to play stategy games that don’t give you time to make decisions – I’ll always prefer turn-based to real-time strategy games. I didn’t feel like I was ever in control of events during Mass Effect’s combat.

Then, a mission or two into the game, I realised that while selecting my weapons and powers the game was paused, and I could move the cursor around with the joystick to pick out different targets for my attacks, and the attacks of my team. Suddenly, from being a bunch of buffoons chasing robots round and round crates, we became a crack tactical squad, knocking enemies flying with our telekinetic powers, lifting them into the air, blowing up their guns, and knocking them down with our shotguns. From that moment the game got better and better. There’s a sheer glee to unleashing one powerful attack after another (balanced with the tension of anticipating the equally powerful attacks of your enemies) that makes Mass Effect a wonderful and addictive game to play.

That pretty much seems to have happened to everyone. In the latest issue of Edge the game is described as “the absolute best flawed game of the year”. A poster on Digital Spy who started a thread by the name of “Mass Effect – Yawn-o-Rama” in December returned in January to say he now loved it. And Dean Takahashi posted a follow-up review explaining how wrong he had got it the first time around.

One reason for such changing views is the process I mentioned above – simply getting to grips with the mechanics of the game. Another reason is that the game gets more and more enjoyable the stronger your powers get.

This adds immensely to the game’s replayability. If you choose, you can start a new game with the character and equipment with which you ended the previous one. So if you built up the appropriate abilities in the previous game, you can start smashing robots into walls like marbles from your very first encounter with them. Hence my second play-through was when I began to really love the game.

It’s a fairly short game, by RPG standards, which at first I thought was a bad thing. My first play-through, checking out every anomaly, scanning every planet, chasing down every mission, only took about thirty hours; and I tend to play games quite slowly. My second, a sprint through the main missions on a higher skill level, skipping through the conversations I’d already heard, took just twelve hours.

At that point, what had seemed a failing in the game, became a plus point: it’s a game that’s designed to be replayed, to be played through and through as different characters, with different powers, and in different ways.

It’s hard to say why I think that’s a good thing, because I don’t like watching movies I’ve seen before, and I don’t like reading books I’ve already read. So let me give you an example of a game that takes a different approach: Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. I love the Elder Scrolls series of games, and I’ve put over a hundred hours into this one, but if there’s one thing I’m not massively keen on, as a former player of traditional paper and pencils role-playing games, it is that you can do absolutely everything the game has to offer in a single play-through. You can play as a warrior, rise to the top of the fighter’s guild, and then join the mage’s guild too and rise to the top of that, often bludgeoning your way through the tasks assigned because your magic won’t be up to it. That’s great fun, of course, such free-spiritedness is integral to the game’s design, but it bothers me because with every additional career ladder you scale in Oblivion, the less sense you have of yourself playing a role, the more you’re just playing a game. (Of course, that was partly my fault for choosing to play Oblivion that way: I could easily have started a new magic-based character to play the mages guild missions.)

The converse is true of Mass Effect. If you’re playing as a soldier, you don’t get telekinetic powers of your own. You have to choose team-mates whose abilities will complement your own. Next time around, you could have your own telekinetic powers, or you could specialise in technical attacks, or you could continue to build the talents of your existing character. The length of the game means that it isn’t a chore to start over, but rather something to relish. It’s more akin to starting a new game of Civilization IV than it is to restarting a Final Fantasy game.

All in all, Mass Effect has been a fitting end to three or four of the best months of gaming I can ever remember: Halo 3, Bioshock, The Orange Box and Mass Effect, not to mention a couple of brief dalliances with Pixeljunk Monsters and Pro Evolution Soccer 6. The last time I enjoyed gaming so thoroughly and unreservedly for such a long period was probably back in the 1980s, after my Dad brought home a ZX Spectrum and two C90s full of copied games.

Originally published in Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #21.

Mass Effect, Bioware (dev.). US, Xbox 360.